Sassi Matera, Basilicata, Italy

Sassi (ancient town)Matera has gained international fame for its ancient town, the “Sassi di Matera” (meaning “stones of Matera”). The Sassi originate from a prehistoric (troglodyte) settlement, and are suspected to be some of the first human settlements in Italy. The Sassi are houses dug into the calcareous rock itself, which is characteristic of Basilicata and Apulia. Many of these “houses” are really only caverns, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi often are located on the rooftops of other houses. The ancient town grew in height on one slope of the ravine created by a river that is now a small stream. The ravine is known locally as “la Gravina”. In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. However, people continued to live in the Sassi, and according to the English Fodor’s guide:

“Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago”

Until the late 1980s this was considered an area of poverty, since these houses were, and in most areas still are, mostly unlivable. Current local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented, and has promoted the re-generation of the Sassi with the aid of the European Union, the government, UNESCO, and Hollywood. Today there are many thriving businesses, pubs, and hotels.

Matera preserves a large and diverse collection of buildings related to the Christian faith, including a large number of rupestrian churches carved from the soft volcanic rock of the region. These churches, which are also found in the neighboring region of Puglia, were listed in the 1998 World Monuments Watch by the World Monuments Fund.

Matera Cathedral

Matera Cathedral (1268–1270) is an important monument, and has been dedicated to Santa Maria della Bruna since 1389. Built in an Apulian Romanesque architectural style, the church has a 52m tall bell tower, and next to the main gate is a statue of the Maria della Bruna, backed by those of Saints Peter and Paul. The main feature of the façade is the rose window, divided by sixteen small columns. The interior is on the Latin cross plan, with a nave and two aisles. The decoration is mainly from the 18th century Baroque restoration, but recently a Byzantine-style fourteenth-century fresco portraying the Last Judgment has been discovered.

Two other important churches in Matera, both dedicated to the Apostle Peter, are San Pietro Caveoso (in the Sasso Caveoso) and San Pietro Barisano (in the Sasso Barisano). San Pietro Barisano was recently restored in a project by the World Monuments Fund, funded by American Express. The main altar and the interior frescoes were cleaned, and missing pieces of moldings, reliefs, and other adornments were reconstructed from photographic archives or surrounding fragments.

There are many other churches and monasteries dating back throughout the history of the Christian church. Some are simple caves with a single altar and maybe a fresco, often located on the opposite side of the ravine. Some are complex cave networks with large underground chambers, thought to have been used for meditation by the rupestric and cenobitic monks.

Cisterns and water collection

Matera was built above a deep ravine called Gravina of Matera that divides the territory into two areas. Matera was built such that it is hidden, but made it difficult to provide a water supply to its inhabitants. Early dwellers invested tremendous energy in building cisterns and systems of water channels.

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